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The 'Charlie Hebdo' Attacks Showed When We Need Cops

We should salute cops when they do their jobs, but law enforcement heroism can't be used to delay police reform.

by Lucy Steigerwald
Jan 12 2015, 10:27pm

Photo via Flickr user Gwenael Piaser

The backlash against criticism of the police, which began with the tragic assassination of two cops in New York City on December 20, will likely continue after the deaths of Paris police officers last week in connection with the massacre of Charlie Hebdo staff by terrorists.

It's important to acknowledge the heroism of police, both here and abroad. The death of French cop Ahmed Merabet in particular has struck a chord for many, as the Muslim was the first officer to respond to the incident, and his final moments were caught on video. Another French officer, Chief Helric Fredou, committed suicide on Wednesday after being put on the case. These men ought to be remembered for their sacrifices, as should the many cops who die in the line of duty.

As the world watched the manhunt unfold, we saw the full array of French law enforcement hardware on display—helicopters, armored vehicles, officers in full riot gear. It was an active shooter situation that turned into a hostage crisis, so it's hard to argue a robust response wasn't warranted.

But in America, our cops often bring that gear out for narcotics and other routine vice raids. The challenge is to somehow have our cops be ready for the worst without turning them into an occupying army.

That won't be easy, but the US is doing a particularly bad job of it. Last year, the American Civil LIberties Union concluded that only 7 percent of all SWAT deployments were carried out for hostage or active-shooter situations. Sixty-two percent were for narcotics raids, and 80 percent were for serving a simple search warrant. Fundamentally, we need cops who can respond to crises like the one Paris just went through. We do not need cops who act like selling pot is an emergency, or who heighten danger with their guns and their flashbang grenades, instead of easing it.

When it comes to fixing the police, bad laws and petty excuses for profiling and harassment need to be the first to go. These guys should be highly-trained public servants we keep on hand in case of a Charlie Hebdo-style terrorist attack, or even a seriously committed school shooter. They should not be kicking in doors over drugs, or dressing like they're at war when they're checking on a local bar's liquor license.

To say that police have had a problem with mission creep, which can and must be checked, is not to insult the best of them. Nor do such critiques mean we have to go without saluting police bravery when it makes a difference.

Now onto this week's bad cops:

-The FBI has been piggy-backing on NSA spying programs like PRISM, the New York Times reported this weekend. Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, the paper's Charlie Savage got his hands on a 231-page report prepared by the Justice Department's inspector general, which suggests the Bureau has been a key player in the warrantless surveillance racket. Tack on backdoor searches the FBI has been conducting without accountability, and it's safe to say the FBI is giving the NSA a run for its money when it comes to claiming the mantle of America's most dystopian agency.

-NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton confirmed on Friday what everyone already had figured out: City cops have been holding back since their two comrades were slain, with their arrest numbers way down. But after nudging from union leaders and commanders, arrests are already on the way up again.

-On January 7, Northeast Ohio Media Group released video of the shooting of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot over his toy gun. Reports that Rice's 14-year-sister was handcuffed when she tried to rush to the scene turned out to be quite true. Officer Timothy Loehmann's partner threw Rice's sister down, then put her in the back of their squad car. Law enforcement also failed to render medical aid for the first four minutes of the video. After 13 minutes, paramedics arrived to take Rice away. Be warned if you follow that link: The video makes for grim viewing.

-On Tuesday, a Burlington, Iowa, Police Department Officer reportedly fatally shot a woman during a domestic violence incident. Officer Jesse Hill was either escorting Autumn Steele home after she was jailed—so that she could gather some belongings—or else he arrived on the scene some time later. In any case, at some point Steele got into another argument with husband, and her dog approached the officer. Hill felt threatened—he was reportedly bitten— and shot at the dog twice, somehow hitting Steele instead.

-On Friday, a member of the Albuquerque Police Department was shot by a uniformed lieutenant during a $60 meth sting. The officer was shot in a McDonald's parking lot, and has already undergone several surgeries (he currently remains in intensive care). Another unnamed officer was slightly injured. Police work is always going to have its dangers, but to risk lives over small-time drug busts is absurd.

-Also on Friday, Derrick Hamilton—who spent 20 years in prison—was officially exonerated for murder. Hamilton was put away thanks to former NYPD officer Louis Scarcella, who allegedly forced a witness into identifying Hamilton. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson is looking at over 70 other convictions secured by Scarcella for any signs of similarly shady tactics.

-Last week, Victoria, Texas, Police Officer Nathanial Robinson was fired over a December 11 traffic stop during which the 26-year-old threw 76-year-old Pete Vasquez on the ground and Tasered him twice. Robinson also apparently violated department policy by arresting Vasquez without a warrant. On Sunday, Robinson appealed his termination. His lawyer says the Vasquez kicked Robinson, and that the man wasn't injured anyway.

-Our Good Cop of the Week is Brick Township, New Jersey, Police Officer James Albanese. The phrase "split-second reaction" usually comes up when a cop fatally shoots someone, but in Albanese's case, it meant not hesitating when he swam into freezing water to rescue an unconscious woman who had been trying to commit suicide. The woman will likely be OK, and Albanese was released after a brief hospital trip. Not waffling when a woman was in trouble makes Albanese a very good cop indeed.

Follow Lucy Steigerwald on Twitter.